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Olympic flame to arrive in Japan as plans for Tokyo Games forge ahead despite pandemic

Olympic organizers face growing calls to postpone or cancel the games.

TOKYO -- After being lit at a sparsely attended ceremony in Greece, the Olympic flame is slated to arrive in Japan on Friday amid growing calls for the upcoming Tokyo Games to be postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Hellenic Olympic Committee announced last week it was cancelling the Olympic torch relay around Greece "in order to contribute to the containment of the virus." The handover ceremony to Japanese Olympic officials was carried out as planned at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens on Thursday, but with no public in attendance.

Bringing the flame to Japan takes organizers one step closer to their goal of staging the 2020 Summer Olympics as scheduled on July 24, followed by the Paralympics on Aug. 25. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed hard for Tokyo's selection as the host city during an International Olympic Committee meeting in 2013.

But a global outbreak of the novel coronavirus has shrouded the games in doubt, even as organizers maintain they are forging ahead with the events as planned and encourage athletes to continue training.

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More than 222,000 people around the world have been diagnosed with the new respiratory virus, known officially as COVID-19, since it was first detected in China back in December. Last week, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic.

A number of Olympic athletes have voiced concerns on social media about the games still being held as scheduled this summer amid the global health crisis.

Greek Olympic champion pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi wrote on Twitter that the International Olympic Committee's advice for athletes to keep training is "risking our health, our family's health and public health."

"This is not about how things will be in 4 months. This is about how things are now," Stefanidi tweeted Tuesday. "You are putting us in danger right now, today, not in 4 months."

British Olympic heptathlete wrote on Twitter that she feels "under pressure to train and keep the same routine which is impossible."

“We’re trying to follow information with how to continue safely whilst reducing the risk to everyone around us and the information of the IOC and local government are at odds with one another,” Johnson-Thompson tweeted Tuesday.

"The IOC advice 'encourages athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games as best they can’ with the Olympics only four months away, but the government legislation is enforcing isolation at home with tracks, gyms and public spaces closed," she continued.

Just under 1,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Japan, and a top Olympic official is one of them. Kozo Tashima, the president of the Japan Football Association and vice-chairman of the Japan Olympic Committee, revealed that he tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Tuesday.

"I pray that the Olympics and all sports can be performed safely in Japan and around the world," Tashima said in a statement.

With the Tokyo Olympics just four months away, Japan is scrambling to prevent further spread of the disease on home soil. The Japanese government has established the Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters, while the Tokyo metropolitan government has set up an internal task force. The Tokyo Olympic organizing committee has also established its own task force.

Meanwhile, the Japanese prime minister has ordered all elementary, middle and high schools to stay closed until spring holidays begin in late March.

More recently, Abe announced that travelers from dozens of European nations and other countries, including Egypt and Iran, will be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival in Japan. He said an entry ban will also be imposed on visitors from Iceland as well as virus-hit areas of Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

After last week's symbolic lighting of the Olympic flame in the ancient Greek site of Olympia, the International Olympic Committee confirmed its "full commitment to the success" of the upcoming games and said it would continue to follow the advice of the World Health Organization.

"We remain absolutely in line with our Japanese hosts in our commitment to delivering safe Olympic Games in July this year," the International Olympic Committee said in a statement on March 12.

"At the same time, the world is facing challenges that are also impacting sport. But with 19 weeks before the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the many measures being taken now by authorities all around the world give us confidence and keep us fully committed to delivering Olympic Games that can bring the world together in peace," the statement continued.

The Tokyo Olympic organizing committee's CEO, Toshiro Muto, reiterated to reporters Tuesday night that "everyone is committed to having the games as scheduled."

"Our point of view, our stance is that as scheduled the Olympic games will take place in a safe and secure manner," Muto said at a press conference in Tokyo. "We will continue to make efforts for that to happen. That is our stance."

A spokesperson for Tokyo Olympic organizing committee told ABC News Thursday that their stance has not changed since the CEO spoke.

One employee at the headquarters for the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games acknowledged the doubts surrounding the games but, when asked how he felt about it, he simply shrugged and said, "I have no choice but to believe the games will happen."

Reporting by ABC News' Anthony Trotter in Tokyo, Japan. Writing and additional reporting by ABC News' Morgan Winsor in London, United Kingdom.

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